Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
–Last time we talked about your October 8 2012 match with Minoru Suzuki. Earlier that night, Yujiro Takahashi had put Tetsuya Naito on the shelf, leading to him confronting you in ring.
Tanahashi: He caused quite the stir digging up my past.
–He brought up the ‘incident ten years ago’, and said ‘women loved you enough to stab you near to death’, before issuing his challenge.
Tanahashi: It was a pretty big shock, but it was like Yujiro at the time. He was pushing himself as this “R-Rated” guy who would say and do all kinds of scandalous stuff. So it was on point in that regard, but I think the pictures show how caught off guard I was.
–It’s a hard line to ready a comeback to.
Tanahashi: Well, I think it reminded me that the whole thing was something that people could bring up at any time. That day will be with me for the rest of my life.
–You responded to Yujiro by saying ‘I’ll always have to carry that with me, but that’s fine- I’m carrying NJPW as well’.
Tanahashi: What he said had taken me aback, but I saw a window in there to sell this match, and I took it. That’s why I was the champ, heh.
–This was Yujiro’s first, and to date only IWGP Heavyweight Championship challenge.
Tanahashi: Right. We’d faced one another in the G1, in his hometown in Niigata, and I won then. But I was pulling for him in a way. All the while he was trying to be a singles guy, Tetsuya Naito was sprinting ahead of him. I’m sure that was tough for him to swallow, and I did want to see him make a move for himself.
–So you had a soft spot for him.
Tanahashi: I did, and as much as that comment of his stumped me for a second, it showed that he was stepping up to the plate.
–What did you think of Yujiro when he was coming up on the Hontai side?
Tanahashi: He was a great cook, and it was obvious that he was a pretty good home cook before he came in. He’d done a lot as an amateur in college, so even as a Young Lion he had a lot of raw power and strength. But when it came to things that were more directly related to pro-wrestling, Naito was always ahead of him. That made him an underdog in my book, so I liked Yujiro.
–There was definitely a lot of power on display as a theme in this title match.
Tanahashi: This was before he had to have surgery on his pec. His power was really something else. But I just don’t think we were able to do as much as I would have liked with that match. I don’t think Yujiro was quite there to be honest. Being the champion, obviously it was my job to get the match over, but it’s a two way street.
–Where do you feel Yujiro came up short? He was certainly impressive in the build up, and he kept playing those head games in preview tags.
Tanahashi: Hmm. But for all that, from getting personal in that first challenge to everything that came afterward, the match just turned into a normal match in the end. It wasn’t bad or anything, actually it was a good match. It’s just that I think it would have been a lot better if he’d have come out with both barrels as a full on heel, given the build that was put into it. If he’d have made it more of that kind of fight, I would have been in a better place to respond, I reckon.
–So after Power Struggle you were part of the World Tag League. This was actually the first WTL after it was renamed from G1 Tag League. You were in the Captain Ace team with Captain New Japan, who was in your corner a lot of the time. You two were fairly close?
Tanahashi: Yeah, I’d say so. We got on really well out of the ring. He liked to have a drink and a good time, and he was really personable. We would do a lot of promotional events together, he was a ton of fun.
–What was he like as a wrestler?
Tanahashi: He was a big guy under that suit and mask, and he’d done a lot as an amateur. He had a lot of upside and never really made use of it. Even as a trainee, I always felt he’d be great if he worked a little harder.
–It sounds like you were a little frustrated with him?
Tanahashi: Well, he came into the company in a very similar way to Toru Yano. The difference with Yano was that when he came into the business he really threw himself into it and did all he could to fall in love with it.
–Yano didn’t watch wrestling before being brought into NJPW.
Tanahashi: But he jumped in with both feet and did all he could. I remember when he was a Young Lion he would be going up to the veterans like Hiro Saito and Tatsutoshi Goto and asking them to watch his matches and give feedback.
–Funny how he had a knack for going to those guys for advice given the wrestler he turned out to be.
Tanahashi: Right? With Yano, he knew from an early stage that he wasn’t going to be this incredible athletic guy, and that his skills would be in how to carry the match along and grasp the psychology of everything. He was just so self aware at an early stage, and he was so hungry to learn. That wasn’t quite the case with Captain, which is a real shame.
–There’s that frustration again.
Tanahashi: The guy was 6’2”, 6’3”, and he didn’t have to lift much to be in good shape and look impressive. Part of him teaming with me was this sense that maybe I could bring that latent appeal out of him.
–What did you think of the whole hero character?
Tanahashi: I loved it. I think in a different era people would have seen it as too hokey. But it was the right character for 2012, and this different era we were getting into. It was definitely the right character for the time, and you could tell by how much the fans would get into him.
–You ended this World Tag League with a 0-6 record.
Tanahashi: Never having the right partner was a problem for me for years, but I think teaming with Captain just proved to me I wasn’t a good tag team wrestler at all (laughs). But I will say that I had a ball doing that tag league with him. The Captain Ace team name was cool, and having the matching gear and everything… it made people smile and it was a ton of fun.
–It was definitely unique. People couldn’t tell beforehand whether you would be favourites or the biggest underdogs.
Tanahashi: Ahh I suppose so (laughs)! In the end though I think for us as wrestlers there’s a certain drive that we need. It’s like, we have a vision of ourselves that we want to give form in a way, and so we spend all this effort trying to get to that point. The problem is, if you don’t have that mental image in the first place, then you aren’t going to get anywhere. Captain had chances, and he had the base ability. He just didn’t have the mindset. It was a shame to see it go to waste.